Former City Councilman Bill Green, the former School Reform Commission chairman who in 2018 toyed with a run for Congress, introduced legislation allowing for the interiors of the city’s great public spaces to be eligible for historic preservation. Until that time, Philadelphia’s preservation laws focused on protecting only buildings’ exteriors. Meanwhile, the interiors of places such as City Hall or the Ritz Carlton rotunda — modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, the hotel claims — were vulnerable to being torn apart.
When Green introduced the bill so quickly after the National Trust’s list was published in 2008, he caught much of Philadelphia’s preservation community by surprise. His proposal was a big, quickly drafted change for a historic-preservation code that hadn’t had any major additions in nearly 30 years.
Even so, in the nearly 10 years since, few building interiors have been added to the historic register.
Earlier this month, however, a new one joined the list.
The Philadelphia Historical Commission on April 12 voted to add the interior of 30th Street Station to the local historic register, making it the fourth indoor space in the city to be protected from modification. The discussion surrounding the preservation application — which occurred during a marathon, eight-hour commission meeting — was brief and received positive feedback from many commission members, with the group ultimately voting 11-0 in favor of designation.
The station joins the interiors of City Council Chambers (Room 400) in City Hall, the public spaces in the former Family Court building, and the Grand Court of the Wanamaker Building (now Macy’s in Center City) on the local register. For an interior space to qualify for preservation, it must be a structure that is, or was designed to be, customarily open to the public. The interiors of buildings that are used exclusively as private residences are not eligible.
The designation of 30th Street Station’s interior, which takes effect immediately, means that any change to the indoor architectural fabric must be approved by the Historical Commission. The owner of 30th Street Station, Amtrak, consulted on the nomination, assisting the nomination’s author, Ben Leech, a consultant to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, with the building’s history.
According to Leech’s nomination, which was submitted last fall, the interior of 30th Street Station was nominated for its historical and architectural significance, and for being one of the city’s “most iconic and trafficked public spaces.” Designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, a prominent 20th-century architectural firm from Chicago, the station showcases Classical Revival architecture, with, according to Leech, “forward-looking Art Deco accents.”
The historic designation protects the station’s interior spaces that have retained the majority of their historic finishes, fixtures, and features since the building was constructed in the early 1930s by Pennsylvania Railroad, then the nation’s largest railroad company. This includes the main concourse area, ticket lobby, waiting room, and suburban concourse ramps. Partitioned retail spaces, restrooms, and private service areas are excluded from preservation.
The historic nomination would not have saved Amtrak’s iconic flipboard sign, which was removed from the center of the station this year, despite public outcry and U.S. Rep Brendan Boyle’s efforts to save it. The nomination for preservation limits the period of historical significance to the years between 1933 and 1955, meaning that “changes that were made after 1955 would not be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny as changes that occurred before then,” said Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
In the nomination for preservation, the flipboard — installed shortly after Amtrak came into existence in 1971 — was listed as a “noncontributing” feature, meaning it would have had no oversight by the Historical Commission, Steinke said. Amtrak opted to replace the flipboard with a digital screen this year, in part because the flipboard was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and was becoming “hard to maintain."
The station’s limestone walls and soaring Corinthian columns are protected, as is the marble floor, the gold-and-burgundy coffered ceilings, and the octagonal hanging light fixtures. The collection of public art inside the station, including Walker Hancock’s Angel of Resurrection and Karl Bitter’s Spirit of Transportation, also got protection. Hancock’s angel statue, according to the nomination, was dedicated in 1952 as a memorial to Pennsylvania Railroad workers who died in World War II.
The significance of 30th Street Station, according to the building’s nomination, extends beyond its architecture. When it was completed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1930s, it became one of the last major railroad stations built before the interstate highway system or before airplanes became a primary method of long-distance travel. It represented a move away from the “humble, makeshift” utilitarian railroad structures, the nomination said, instead representing “an apex in the design of the railroad station as a symbolic gateway and civic monument."
Also, according to the nomination, it had broad implications on development and infrastructure in Philadelphia, particularly around the Schuylkill River.
The exterior of 30th Street Station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and the Philadelphia register in 1980. The nomination form for the national register called the station “a building of self-evident importance and a significant landmark for the city of Philadelphia.”